Nintendo had a big problem in the early eighties. Tons of CRTs ordered for arcade machines and nothing to use them on. Nintendo settled on an interesting solution. They were going to make a brand new title using two screens! So the time traveler in the meeting had successfully put them on the path to their future, but they still didn’t have a game. They decided to make it a fighting game to become incredibly popular in the west. Eventually, they settled on a boxing title. Punch-Out!! has a pretty comedic history, doesn’t it? In 2009 a new title was developed by Next Level Games for the Wii! Simply dubbed “Punch-Out!!”, just like the original, the game is considered one of the consoles’ greatest hidden gems. This is the title I’ll be reviewing today.
You play as Little Mac, a hot-shot 17-year-old kid from the Bronx, fighting his way through the world’s toughest challengers. Little Mac has constant support from his personal trainer Doc Louis. You’ve got to take on the world, and quite a few boxers, to become the best. You’ll even exchange fists with Donkey Kong! Almost every opponent you face will get an introductory cutscene showcasing their personality. Punch-Out!! keeps close to the arcade roots of little story, but there certainly isn’t little character.
The Punch-Out!! franchise is often given the label of “fighting game.” I don’t think it really fits it. You are fighting against an opponent while making complex decisions based on their actions, but the gameplay is so far from the traditional fighter that I can’t compare them. Little Mac can jab or throw a hook with either hand. He can dodge to the left, right, or down below. Punch-Out!! is much more of a pattern recognition game than it is a fighter. There is a set “best” way to take down every opponent. You can take certain actions to award you a star. If you have stars you can perform one of three levels of super attack. You can only have three stars, and you’ll lose all of your stars if you take any damage. It’s a very compelling risk vs. reward system. When you knock down an opponent you can regain health by pressing the punch buttons repeatedly. It’s not too important, but I found it useful for later championship matches.
Punch-Out!! looks great on the Wii! It goes for a cell-shades art style and prefers to be wacky over pretty. I feel these types of art styles are always going to be “timeless.” For example, Winder Waker will always look better in the future than Twilight Princess attempting to be realistic. Punch-Out!! always tries to be silly, and I can see that being grading for some. Punch-Out!! as a franchise just has one of the best consistent soundtracks in gaming. Wii absolutely does not disappoint. Even having never played this game, I’d sometimes look up the soundtrack to listen to while writing and I still will.
Punch-Out!! is definitely not a perfect game. There are fights that can feel unfair or too strict on timing. Those fights seem minuscule among the tens of perfectly crafted encounters. A few bad levels don’t make a great game terrible, no matter how hard they seem. This version of Punch-Out!! was re-released on the Wii U’s Wii virtual console for $20. I purchased my copy for $17 at a used game store. If you still have a Wii hanging about, or even better a Wii U, I highly recommend you search this one out. It’s a bit short, but it’s now one of my favorites!
People always felt that Punch-Out!! was a shoo-in for the Super Smash Bros. roster. Which is why it was so shocking that Mac only made the cut in Super Smash Bros. For Wii U and 3DS. His reveal gathered some of the most exciting reactions at the time. Especially as he was an Assist Trophy in Brawl. Punch-Out got a lot of the spotlight in the For games and lost nothing in the transition to Ultimate.
My problems with Punch-Out!! in Smash lay with the fundamentals of Little Mac’s design. Little Mac is an experienced boxer so he’s designed to be extremely agile and hard-hitting on the ground. Little Mac even has a mechanic where he can build up a meter and then unleash a punch that might as well be instant death to the opponent. The issue is when he’s not on the ground. He has the worst recovery moves in the game, and terrible airspeed. That’s not mentioning he drops harder than a Belmont knocked off a three-pixel platform. He even isn’t really that great on the ground. He’s idle and open for a long time after his harder attacks. Leaving him just worse than someone like Mario or Marth. It’s a shame that I really don’t like Little Mac’s style in Smash at all. It’s even worse knowing how commonly spread that opinion is. I think Little Mac embodies the “casual killer” archetype. Load him up with items and frantic four-player action, and they’ll never know what hit them. Go face to face with a Peach or a Puff in grand-finals, and you’ll never even see the ground.